Yunnan, Shangri-La, and the Tea Horse Road
A photography tour with Michael Yamashita and Jock Montgomery
October 18 – 29, 2016: 12-day trip exploring the tea roads and waterways of the Yangtze and Mekong Rivers
October 13 – 17, 2016: 5-day pre-trip extension exploring the historic trading posts of Shaxi and Lijiang
Join renowned National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita and international adventure travel guide and photographer Jock Montgomery on a photographic exploration of a UNESCO natural heritage site with a unique human history over a 1,000 years old.
Draining the southeastern part of the Tibetan plateau, three great rivers run in parallel: the Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween. From lush valleys of wheat and corn to arid mountains grazed by yaks, this area is one of the most biologically and culturally diverse in the world.
You will walk along alpine tundra with vistas of jagged snow-capped peaks, stand next to thundering rapids at the bottom of massive gorges, and step into the daily lives of indigenous people in vibrant traditional dress. It would not be an accident should you wonder if you had somehow landed in Shangri-La.
Documentary about Michael Yamashita’s work: Art of the Photographer
This photography tour concentrates first and foremost on helping you see and shoot in new and exciting ways. Michael Yamashita and Jock Montgomery will personally help you define your composition, creating compelling content, and help you see the light. As you work towards nurturing your shooting style, you will learn how to personalize breathtaking moments that range from sweeping natural scenery to colorful human activities.
Every other day, we will gather to review each other’s work. Michael and Jock will personally critique your photos and provide expert advice for improvement and growth. Upon conclusion of the trip, each participant will receive a certificate of completion signed by Michael and Jock.
- Receive personal guidance from National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita and adventure travel photographer Jock Montgomery.
- Follow a portion of the Tea Horse Road and visit Shangri-La through the eyes of Michael Yamashita, photographer and writer of the book Shangri-La: along the tea road to Lhasa.
- Experience a UNESCO natural heritage site featuring massive gorges with thundering rapids, towering mountains with low altitude glaciers, and vast biological and cultural diversity. The extension will feature the UNESCO cultural heritage site of Lijiang.
- Explore protected areas and photograph endangered Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys.
- View one of the three most sacred peaks in Tibetan Buddhism, Kawagarbo.
- Walk around Baima pass (4,335 meters) to view grazing yaks, colorful wildflowers, and hundreds of prayer flags set amidst sweeping alpine meadows.
- Visit and photograph indigenous people; such as the Naxi, Lisu, Tibetan, and Bai; in their homes and places of work.
- Stay at the luxurious Songtsam lodges, winners of Travelers’ Choice Award for 2013 and one of Tattler’s 101 Best Hotels in the World. (We stay at these lodges every night of the main trip but not during the extension.)
by Michael Yamashita
Our Trip in Detail
Being flexible and open to new opportunities is the cornerstone to seeking out and shooting compelling photographs. We will make every effort to keep our plans flexible so we can take full advantage of photographic opportunities as they arise.
Please note: three meals a day are included in the cost except for first and last days as noted in the itinerary.
Day 1, 10/18: Arrive in Lijiang
Most of you will arrive at Lijiang airport via Beijing or Shanghai with a stopover in Chengdu, arriving in the late afternoon.
We stay in a lovely hotel built with traditional methods in Naxi architectural styles. In the early evening, Michael and Jock will give a tour briefing, followed by a welcome dinner at our hotel. (This will be our first meal together.)
Day 2, 10/19: To Tacheng
In the morning, we drive northwest and en route we stop in the town of Shigu to explore sacred stupas and see the Great Bend in the Yangtze River. From here we continue to Tacheng. Along the way, we stop at villages where rice, wheat, and grapes are grown in a traditional manner.
In the afternoon, we visit the small farming village of Tacheng where we will have the opportunity to make impromptu visits to traditional homes. Typically, these have wooden floors, a gompa room for prayer and sleeping, a Buddhist shrine, and a wood stove used for heating and cooking. These intimate visits may also afford the opportunity to take portraits.
Throughout the rest of our tour we stay at five different Songtsam lodges. They provide excellent accommodation, and delicious organic meals, offering dishes that are both Western and traditional.
Day 3, 10/20: Layover in Tacheng
Drive to the Golden Monkey National Park and research center. Make close-up observations and photographs of golden monkeys in their natural habitat (also known as Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys). With fewer than 2000 in the wild, this is one of the most endangered primates in the world.
In the afternoon, we take a downhill, three-hour scenic walk past a stream dotted with prayer wheels to the Tibetan village of Bazhu known for the perfume it produces from rose petals.
We will return to our lodge for leisure time or walk through Hada village where you can share a cup of tea with a local Naxi family. Do not miss the reportedly 1,000-year-old auspicious gingko tree near our lodge.
Day 4, 10/21: To Cizhong
A morning drive will take us into the mountains and across a low pass. We will then descend into the valley of the Mekong, the middle of the three parallel rivers. We will follow the Mekong upstream on a large highway that is somewhat desolate except for the winter months. The environment will become drier as we increase in elevation.
We will visit the Tibetan village of Baima. Since ancient times, this area has been a fertile source of traditional medicines, including ginseng, saussurea, and caterpillar fungus. These are harvested annually for use in Tibetan medicinal practices.
We will cross the Mekong to the village of Cizhong, where an old Catholic church.
Day 5, 10/22: Layover Cizhong
We continue to explore Cizhong village where French Catholic missionaries, disguised as merchants, arrived in the 19th century, spreading knowledge of the bible and building churches. The majority of residents in Cizhong, both Lisu and Tibetan, are Catholic and attend daily mass at the impressive town church.
In the afternoon, we will have the option to wine taste at a local home or hike beside the Mekong River in the Meile Snow Mountain Protected Zone to another Catholic Tibetan village, Badong.
In the evening, we will likely have dinner with in a village family home.
Day 6, 10/23: To Meili
We continue driving up an unforgettable road cut into the mountain above the Mekong. On the way, we will pass some massive, mind-bending dam projects before descending into the provincial capital of Deqin, the district headquarters for northern Yunnan province.
At Deqin, there is a friendly market intermixed with modern buildings that offer an interesting juxtaposition. At Namka Tashi monastery we will take a short walk to an area covered with thousands of prayer flags and, weather permitting, stunning views of the mountains. We may also have the opportunity to watch people carving Mani stones for use in Tibetan prayer.
At the lodge in Meili, we will have another view of the Meile Snow Mountains and Kawagarbo peak, one of the three most sacred mountains in Tibetan Buddhism.
Day 7, 10/24: Layover Meili
We spend another day observing and photographing the spectacular views of this town. We will explore the adjacent village of Gujiunong, which is inhabited by a handful of families who practice polyandry. This area is one of the few places where traditional Tibetan herding and farming are still practiced.
Depending on the weather, we may take a long hike to a remote village or go to a village beside the Mekong at the base of the Kawagarbo mountain.
In the evening, we may experience Tibetan dancing and a bonfire party.
Day 8, 10/25: To Benzilan
We drive to Baima pass at 4,335 meters, the high point of the trip, stopping to walk among the wildflowers, yak herders, and prayer flags. We will continue to Dongzhulin Monastery, an important destination for local Tibetans that ostensibly has several reincarnated lamas. We hope to meet with the abbot and some of the novices and monks. We may also visit the Shusong Nunnery, the only Tibetan nunnery in Yunnan.
We reach Benzilan for a late lunch. A short drive will take us to a trail that follows a clear mountain brook, continues through an old-growth forest, passes by pastures blanketed with blue and purple irises until we are over 3,000 meters high and reach a mountaintop village. The dramatic change in the climate and environment will offer a sense of the sharp diversity of the land.
At the lodge, we can relax in the meditation room, read in the library, or take in views from the rooftop terrace.
Day 9, 10/26: Layover Benzilan
After breakfast, we will drive to the river gorge at Wengshui National Park where we will hike along elevated boardwalks above a crystal clear river, drive up a road laced with switchbacks to a Tibetan village with amazing views, and climb a series of staircases through an incredibly narrow gorge.
In the late afternoon, there will be an option to take a cooking class at a lodge and learn how to make momos in the Tibetan style.
In the evening, we will enjoy another deliciously prepared organic meal.
Day 10, 10/27: Dongzhulin Monastery festival, and to Shangri-La
This morning we return to the village of Benzilan and visit Dongzhulin Monastery, an important destination for local Tibetans that ostensibly has several reincarnated lamas. We hope to meet with the abbot and some of the novices and monks and the monastery should be packed with local Tibetan pilgrims. Today and tomorrow mark this monasteries’ annual festival when sacred cham dances are performed with dramatic costumes and a riot of color. (This little-known festival is based on the lunar calendar, and I hate to even suggest this, but it’s important to know that this festival could be canceled or postponed for any number of reasons, but having said this we are very optimistic that this exciting event will take place!)
In the afternoon we continue on the Tea Horse Road, stopping at a Naxi village where they make pottery out of black clay.
In the early evening, we arrive Shangri-La. This area of diverse cultures, peaceful existence, and majestic landscape has a setting reminiscent of the 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. When the novel was translated into Chinese in 1995, a local entrepreneur was inspired to convince the government to change the name of the city and county. In 2001, the town became Shangri-La.
Day 11, 10/28: To Shangri-La
In the early morning, we may go to the imposing Sumtseling Monastery, built by the Fifth Dalai Lama and modeled after Potala Palace, to hear monks chanting. Later we will visit a Thangka painting center.
We visit Ringpa village with its temple of Five Wisdom Buddhas, an important pilgrimage site for all of Shangri-La’s Tibetan Buddhists. As we wander through this traditional village, we will try to stop and have some traditional salt-butter tea–more is more like a soup–in a farmhouse.
Before dinner, we will have the opportunity to explore the town, which is the capital of the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and the gateway to an ancient Tibetan kingdom.
This evening, enjoy a final slideshow and a discussion of everyone’s best photography.
Day 12, 10/29: Departure from Shangri-La
After breakfast, we provide transportation to the airport for your homeward bound flight.
October 13 – 17, 2016: 5 days exploring the historic trading posts of Shaxi and Lijiang
A recent message from Mike: I am looking forward to the Shangri-La/Tea Horse Road workshop and especially our pre-tour extension to the Shaxi area, as it has been almost eight years since I last visited. It’s the best preserved and most photogenic Ming dynasty village I know of in China and I fear that the recent Ed Wong NY Times piece is going to accelerate change, bringing in more tourists and ruining it forever.
There are photographs from Shaxi in my Shangri-La book. I want to especially revisit the Yi minority people who live up the mountain above the village. They are a friendly group and the women love to have their pictures taken, their art being the colorful costumes they wear. One of the younger women told me, they love parading around the market, as they know all eyes are on them!
Day 1, 10/13: Arrive Lijiang
Most of you will arrive at Lijiang airport via Beijing or Shanghai with a stopover in Chengdu, arriving in the afternoon. If time allows we can certainly do some great street photography. Our hotel is located in the heart of the old village quarter.
We stay in a lovely wooden hotel built with traditional methods in Naxi architectural styles. From the hotel roof, there is an excellent view of the old Lijiang below.
Day 2, 10/14: To Shaxi
After breakfast, we will drive southwest to Shaxi. If the weather is clear (and it should be at this time of year), we will have some views of snowy peaks on the skyline. There are some interesting farmlands along our drive.
This small and quiet town dates back 2400 years. As early as 400 BC Shaxi was a copper mining region with expertise in smelting bronze. Later in the Tang and Song Dynasty, it became an important stopover in the tea trade. Around every alley there are great photo opportunities.
We stay at a family-run guesthouse in Shaxi. The owners are close friends with our local guide Tashi Lamasang.
Day 3, 10/15: Layover Shaxi
We will rise early and spend the morning exploring village life around the central town square, which includes an open courtyard and temples.
After lunch at a local restaurant, we drive the Baoxiang Grotto and the Shiboshan Temples. We will spend the afternoon walking to the old Nanzhou grottoes, which have carvings depicting local life.
We will return to Shaxi by a footpath that descends down a trail surrounded by wildflowers. Once we reach the valley we might see peasants returning from markets or children doing homework as their parents work in the fields, arriving in town for the evening sunset.
Day 4, 10/16: To Lijiang
Heading back to Lijiang, we will pass through lush rice field panoramas where Bai and Naxi farmers in traditional dress will be working.
With Lijiang now being one of China’s most popular tourist destinations, we will have the opportunity to turn our cameras toward modern day leisure activities of the locals. Even with the crowds, Lijiang still as a unique charm. Travelers often refer to this city as the Venice of the East because of its many canals, arched bridges, and stone walkways.
In the evening, we will walk into the old town to hear the Naxi orchestra perform. The musicians use antique instruments to perform Song-dynasty tunes that come from Taoist scriptures, said to have been brought to Lijiang by Kublai Khan. Later we will have dinner at one of the nearby restaurants.
Day 5, 10/17: Layover Lijiang
In the morning we will enjoy Lijiang as many of the locals do: rise at first light and walk through the back alleys and along the small canals to visit a large market. We can shop or experience the food stalls with our palates.
After breakfast, we head to some outlying villages. First, we go to Yu Hu where the eccentric Austrian explorer Joseph Rock, a National Geographic explorer, was based in southwest China from 1922-49. Next, we visit the village of Baisha, once a capital of the Naxi kingdom.
From Baisha, we begin our day hike with views of distant snow-capped mountains fronted by pine forests and wildflowers. After several hours, we will arrive village of Weinha. In the late afternoon, we return to Lijiang.
Day 6, 10/18: Layover Lijiang and the main tour begins
We spend the day seeing more of the sights around Lijiang perhaps returning to some locations to fill in our gaps in your photography.
In the late afternoon, we meet the rest of the group and the main Yunnan tour begins.
In 1983 Jock moved to Nepal to train raft guides and lead river expeditions and treks across much of the Himalayas. He was based in Kathmandu for twelve years and now makes his home in Bangkok, Thailand.
He has been leading trips in the United States since he was a teenager. He now leads river running, sea kayaking, trekking and mountain biking trips; as well as expeditions across the Himalayas and throughout Southeast Asia, North America, Greenland, Patagonia, Ecuador, and the Galapagos islands.
He is in demand as a commercial and editorial assignment photographer. He teaches and leads private photography workshops throughout Asia.
Michael has been shooting for the National Geographic magazine for over three decades, combining his dual passions of photography and travel. His particular specialty is in retracing the paths of famous travelers, resulting in stories on Marco Polo, the Japanese poet Basho, and the Chinese explorer Zheng He.
Michael has been photographing this area since 1996 for National Geographic. Recently he has written and taken photographs for a book about this area entitled Shangri-La: Along the Tea Road to Lhasa
He has received numerous industry awards, including those from the Pictures of the Year, Photo District News, the New York Art Directors Club, and the Asian-American Journalists Association. Major exhibits of his work have opened throughout Asia, in Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Taipei and Singapore, as well as in Rome, Venice, Frankfurt, and Perpignan, France. His work has been exhibited at galleries in Los Angeles and at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.
Michael has published nine books (most inspired by his thirty National Geographic stories): The Great Wall From Beginning to End; New York: Flying High, an aerial portrait of Manhattan; Zheng He: Tracing the Epic Voyages of China’s Greatest Explorer; Japan: The Soul of a Nation; Marco Polo, A Photographer’s Journey; Mekong: A Journey on the Mother of Waters; In the Japanese Garden; A Pictorial Tribute to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy; Lakes, Peaks and Prairies: Discovering the U.S. Canadian Border.
Tashi was born in Nepal to Tibetan refugees. He now lives in Shangri-La and works as a guide in the provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai, Guizhou, and Xinjiang.
Tashi loves adventure and taking travelers off the beaten path. He is a very thoughtful and perceptive leader who keeps a close eye on those little details while at the same time making sure we are all laughing and having fun!
October 18 – 29, 2016
October 13 – 17, 2016 (Pre-trip Extension)
Prices (in US$)
- $7,690/person, 8-12 participants
- $1600/single supplement
- $2990 Tour Extension
- $500 Single Supplement
- Deposit due by May 15: $1,500 (non-refundable)
- Balance Due: 90 days prior to departure
- Minimum Fee $1,500.00
- 120-61 days prior to departure 50% of land cost
- 60 days or less prior to departure 100% of land cost
- Health insurance is required. Travel insurance suggestions. Cancellation insurance is recommended.
- All ground transportation inside our destination(s)
- All entrance and photography fees
- Hotel porter tips
- All meals except first and last day as noted in itinerary
- Bottled water
- Accommodation as specified
- Customary and optional tips for local guides
- Personal expenses including laundry, snacks, drinks, alcohol, etcetera
- Overweight luggage charges
1) Send Deposit
2) Complete Trip Application Form
Download and complete the form below. Send it using the email on the form.
3) Purchase Travel Health Insurance
Traveler’s health insurance is required for all Compass Rose Expedition trips.
We strongly recommend trip cancellation insurance.
4) Send Copy of Passport
We need a copy of your passport to make reservations. Send a copy of the main page (the one with your photo) to the same email as listed on the Trip Application Form.